Penn State football team, in order to succeed, must find answers to these five questions

JON SAUBER
Centre Daily Times (TNS)
Penn State offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich yells to the offensive line as they prepare for a drill during an NCAA college football practice Saturday, Aug. 7, 2021, in State College, Pa. (Abby Drey/Centre Daily Times via AP)

Penn State football is set to begin its 2021 campaign this weekend with plenty of questions remaining about who the Nittany Lions will be as a team.

The group is looking to bounce back from a 4-5 record in 2020 with the hope of proving that was merely a blemish rather than an indication of where the program is at this point.

Let's take a look at the five questions Penn State must answer this season.

How good is Mike Yurcich as an offensive coordinator? This question could also focus around redshirt senior quarterback Sean Clifford, but he's already received plenty of attention this offseason. Instead, we'll focus on the offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach who is tasked with turning Clifford around this season.

Yurcich comes in with an excellent track record and a list of high-profile quarterbacks who he's worked with. Yurcich helped bring along current Pittsburgh Steeler Mason Rudolph when he was at Oklahoma State and spent a year apiece with current Chicago Bear Justin Fields and current Indianapolis Colt Sam Ehlinger in 2019 and 2020, respectively.

He's well-regarded as an offensive coordinator, but this is likely the toughest task he's had since he originally took the Oklahoma State offensive coordinator job in 2013. Yurcich must turn around an offense and a quarterback that failed to meet expectations in 2020 and he must do it quickly, with the Wisconsin game immediately serving as a litmus test for how far along the group is and — perhaps more importantly — how far it has to go.

Can the pass rush produce enough without Adisa Isaac? After Penn State head coach James Franklin announced Isaac would likely miss the season due to an undisclosed injury, the status of the defensive end room changed drastically. A group that previously should've been a strong aspect of the defense now has come into question. Redshirt senior Arnold Ebiketie still has an opportunity to be one of the best pass rushers in the Big Ten but beyond that, there's plenty still up in the air.

Redshirt junior Nick Tarburton should be one of the players in the mix to take over the starting spot, but he doesn't have the pass rush ability that Isaac does, or the athleticism. Instead of that upside, the team should be looking to replace the injured Isaac with solid production in an effort to create a baseline of starter-level player — instead of the upside of a star-level player.

Tarburton is one of many who could fill the role, joining redshirt sophomore Smith Vilbert, senior Jesse Luketa and redshirt freshman Amin Vanover. The other options present more upside and could potentially more directly replace Isaac, but Tarburton could solidify the unit this season.

Who will step up as the team's third receiving option? Yurcich has generally had three receivers find high levels of success in his time with full control of an offense, which means a third player should be in line to step up this season for Penn State. It's safe to pencil in senior Jahan Dotson and sophomore Parker Washington as the team's top two receiving options, but who steps up beyond that remains a mystery.

Usually under Yurcich, that third option would be another wide receiver, but given Penn State's talent at tight end, that's no guarantee. Sophomore KeAndre Lambert-Smith stands out among the wideouts because he already saw time as a starter in 2020, but it remains to be seen if he's ready to take that step forward. Instead, it could be sophomore tight end Theo Johnson who takes the step. Johnson is a massive tight end at 6-foot-6, 256 pounds, but boasts athleticism not often seen with a player that size.

He's fast, yet still gets in and out of his breaks reasonably size. His size and leaping ability should allow him to be a nightmare for defenses in contested catch situations and could lead to him getting mismatches in the slot. It will be interesting to see if Lambert-Smith is ready, or if a player like Johnson can make the leap instead.

Penn State linebacker Brandon Smith (12) in action against Rutgers during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020, in Piscataway, N.J. Penn State won 23-7. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)

Will the current group carry on the tradition of LBU? Micah Parsons carried the figurative "Linebacker U", torch in recent years for Penn State and was still the most recognizable name even if he didn't play last season. Now he's off to the NFL and the team will continue the search to replace him, just as it did in 2020. There are multiple options at the position to be the type of player who can become the next great Penn State linebacker.

Junior Brandon Smith leads the group and for all intents and purposes, he looks the part. Smith is a legitimate freak athlete who can be an elite pass rusher and use his instincts to make plays on the ball in the run game.

Sophomore Curtis Jacobs is a possibility to be next for Penn State, but the safer bet is Smith because of his age and his experience. Both should play a major role on what should be a very good defense this season and that alone could qualify them for carrying on the tradition.

Penn State offensive lineman Rasheed Walker blocks Illinois defensive lineman Owen Carney Jr. (99) during an NCAA college football game in State College, Pa., on Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger)

How good is the offensive line? Penn State's offensive line has had some level of issues for most of Franklin's tenure, with those early issues being due to scholarship restrictions. This season's group could be the best of the bunch if everything breaks its way.

Rasheed Walker and Caedan Wallace have more than enough upside at tackle, Mike Miranda is a solid center option even though he has a limited ceiling and Juice Scruggs should be a mainstay at guard. The questions then, are how good will whoever starts at left guard be, and will Walker play up to his potential? The starting left tackle was good last season, but not great. He was inconsistent at times and was too easily caught off balance by opposing defensive ends.

This year he could be much better with a few simple fixes, especially when it comes to his balance. A consistent Walker should lead to at least four solid offensive linemen with the upside to be much better this season. A bad version of him and the whole group could fall apart.

At left guard, Anthony Whigan and Eric Wilson are set to split reps, but neither has started for the NIttany Lions in the past, leaving the position more up in the air heading into the season. Whigan has shown glimpses of playing well in his limited snaps since reshaping his body and adding more strength, while Wilson is entering his first year after transferring in from Harvard. If either can pull away from the other throughout the season, it should be a good sign for Penn State.